When food kills: BSE, E coli and disaster science

When food kills: BSE, E coli and disaster science
Hugh Pennington
Oxford: OUP 2003 | Pp 226 | ?25.00 | ISBN 0198525176
Reviewed by Dennis Rouvray

A series of emerging, and quite alarming, diseases known as prion diseases, have begun to spread into the human population. Although the first such disease was identified in British sheep as long ago as 1732, their number has now increased to a dozen different diseases that occur in a wide variety of species, eg Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, fatal familial insomnia and Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker syndrome in humans; scrapie in sheep; chronic wasting disease in deer; and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle. Known collectively as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), these diseases unfortunately do not follow the usual rules. Incubation periods are often excessively long (up to 40 years) and the disease suddenly manifests itself without any prior warning. It is invariably fatal and nothing seems to be able to destroy the infecting agent. The cause seems to be that a specific cellular gene produces a labile protein that subsequently becomes misfolded and therefore resistant to digestion by proteases. This leads to a progressive build up of amyloid protein fibrils which eventually kills the host organism.

Hugh Pennington investigates not only TSEs but also so-called ’disaster science’, which includes everything from food-poisoning outbreaks to accidents involving nuclear reactors.

Not surprisingly, his prime focus is on food since he chaired the inquiry into the 1996 E. coli 0157 outbreak in Scotland. The approach he adopts is eclectic and he embraces the historical, legal and scientific aspects of his subject, though he is best when dealing with the political aspects. Clearly, he is angry that Britain leads the world in the number of TSE cases both in humans and in cattle. This he explains by pointing to major deficiencies in the British government machine over the years: its great reluctance to confront unwelcome facts, the monumental inertia it shows in enforcing safety regulations, its setting up of seriously flawed inquiries when things go wrong, and the many false assurances it gave in the BSE and other crises. One thing that policy makers have repeatedly failed to understand is the vital necessity of having top level scientific advice before and during outbreaks. Have we now finally learned the lessons of the past? Probably not, for as Pennington concludes ’Britain is brilliant at winning Nobel Prizes but bad at using its best brains to protect the public’.